Trade Street and 30th Avenue
Downtown Caldwell, New York
Forty-eight minutes before Ralphie DeMellio got murdered, he was living the life.
“You got this,” his buddy was saying as he rubbed Ralphie’s bare shoulders. “You fucking got this, you’re a monster, you’re a motherfucking monster!”
He and his crew were on the sixth level of a parking garage that was all about the oil stains and litter, rather than any Oldsmobiles and Lincolns. The abandoned facility was just a fucking concrete bureau with nothing in its drawers, and in this part of Caldie, any kind of on-its-lonesome didn’t last long. Hello, BKC. Bare Knuckle Conquests was the only legit underground fighting circuit in the southern part of New York State, and the bout held tonight was the reason why he, his bros, and five hundred clout-chasing Insta-famers were here.
Any more selfies and it’d be the goddamn driver’s license lane at the DMV.
But BKC was big ass business, and Ralphie, as the reigning champ, was making big ass fucking bank. Provided none of those dumbasses with the camera phones gave their location away. And fuck, like what were the chances of that with all these geniuses.
“Where’s the coke.”
He put his hand out, and when the brown vial was slapped into his palm like a surgical instrument, he went to town. As he honked two kilos of powder deep into his sinuses, his eyes went jumping bean over the crowd. Down at the other end of the level, they were antsy, drugging, and putting their bets in with the organizer’s bookies. Nothing but three rounds of bare-knuckle minutes between them and the killing they expected to make.
Ralphie was a very good bet.
He hadn’t lost a fight yet, even though he had Slim Jim muscles and smoked a lot of weed. But here was the fucking thing. The bouncers with the boulder biceps and the jelly bellies were only impressive when they were standing still. Get them moving and they had no balance, no speed, and follow-throughs like they had double vision. Long as Ralphie kept buzzing around like a fly on shit, he was unhittable as his right hook went to work.
“You good, Ralphie. You fucking good!”
“Yeah, that’s right, Ralphie, you the best!”
His crew was five guys from the neighborhood. They’d grown up together and were all related, their families having come over on the boat to Ellis Island a couple generations ago and gotten out of Hell’s Kitchen soon as they could afford it. Little Italy in Caldie was little different than the one in Manhattan, and as his father always said, don’t trust someone you don’t know and don’t know someone if you can’t walk to their house.
And there was one other person on Ralphie’s team.
“Where is she.” Ralphie looked around. “Where is—”
Chelle was back by the G4, posed like a Pirelli girl, her elbows on the hood, one heel stabbed into the tire rim. Her head was back, the purple ends of her black hair licking the metallic paint, her red lips parted as she stared up at nothing. The night was chilly because April was still a bitch in this zip code, but she didn’t give a fuck. Her bustier was all she had on up top, and the bottom wasn’t covered much better.
Fuuuuuuck. Those tattoos on her upper thighs were showing. And the ones on the swells of her breasts. And the sleeve on her left arm.
She’d always refused to get one of his initials.
She was like that.
As if she caught his drift, Chelle slowly turned her head. Then she licked her red lips with the tip of her tongue.
Ralphie’s hand went to the front of his jeans. She was not the kind of woman you brought home to mother, and at first, that was the reason he’d fucked her. But she was smart and she had her own hair salon. She didn’t check his phone. She didn’t care if he went out with the boys. She had her own money, she never asked him for a goddamn thing, and she had options, lotta options.
Men wanted her.
She was with him, though. And no matter what she looked like, she didn’t come on to his crew. She was not a pass-around, and anybody rubbed up on her? She was one slap away from knocking their fucking teeth out.
So yeah, after a year, Ralphie was way into her.
To the point where he didn’t care about what anyone else thought, including his traditional Italian mother. As far as he was concerned, Chelle was wifey material and that was all that fucking mattered.
“—got this, Ralphie—”
To kill the ass-kissing all up in his face, Ralphie put his hand on the center of his boy’s chest and pushed the guy back. “Gimme a minute.”
His crew knew what was up, and they turned around and faced the crowd, closing shoulder to shoulder.
And Chelle was well damn aware of what he was after.
The G4 was parked ass in, only a couple of feet of space between the rear bumper and the garage’s nasty concrete wall. Chelle went around and assumed the position, leaning back on the Benz’s boxy rear door and arching her shit. In her heels, she was as tall as Ralphie, and as her lids lowered and her breasts strained against the lace rims of the bustier, she met him right in the eye.
Ralphie’s heart was going fast, but his smile was slow as he put his hands on her little waist. “You want it?”
“Yeah. Gimme it.”
Ralphie unzipped his jeans and stroked himself as he kissed her throat. ‘Cuz she wouldn’t want him to mess up her lipstick. That kinda shit would come later, after he beat the ass of whoever was going to try him tonight. But he wasn’t about to drive his truck through mud, and he wasn’t about to mess up his female in public.
Chelle moved her thong aside, and as she put a stiletto against the concrete, he pumped into her while she grabbed onto his bare shoulders.
The sex was hot as fuck. Because it turned out that if he respected the female? It made everything hotter.
As Ralphie lifted her up so she could put both her legs around his hips, he closed his eyes. The pre-fight rush, the coke, Chelle, the new G4 from the cake he was earning at BKC, it was all power in his veins. He was the man. He was the monster. He was—
Ralphie started to come, and he would have yelled out, but he didn’t want people catching his girl like this. Instead he gritted his teeth and held on tight, dropping his head into Chelle’s perfumed neck and squeezing out curses through his locked jaw.
And then he had to say it.
“I love you, I fucking love you,” he grunted.
He was so into his girl, so into the coming, so into the feel of her coming with him… that he didn’t notice who was watching them from the shadows about twenty feet away.
If he had, he would have packed up his true love and his crew, and left rubber on the road as he got the fuck out of the garage.
Most of destiny was on a need-to-know basis, however.
And sometimes, it was best that you didn’t get a heads-up on the inevitable that had your name on it.
Way too fucking horrifying.
2464 Crandall Avenue
Eleven Miles from Downtown
Mae, blooded daughter of Sturt, blooded sister of Rhoger, pulled on her coat and couldn’t find her purse. The little ranch didn’t offer a lot of hidey-holes, and she found the thing—with her keys, bonus—on the washer by the door out into the garage. Oh, right. She’d brought in her necessaries the night before and had lost control of so many bags. Her purse had thrown up on the tile floor, and she’d only had the energy to put the Humpty back in her Dumpty. Carrying the Michael Kors knockoff into the kitchen had just been too much.
So the lid of the Maytag was as far as she’d gotten.
Grabbing the thing, she checked that the broken strap was still hanging on by the safety pin jury-rig she’d managed. Yup. Good to go. She supposed she could go to TJ Maxx and buy a replacement one, but who had time for that. Besides, “Waste not, want not” had always been the mantra in her family’s household.
Back when their parents had still been alive.
“Phone. Need my . . .”
She found the iPhone 6 in the back pocket of her jeans. Her last double check? The mace, which was illegal in New York State. But come on. She was a vampire living under the radar of humans. Their laws were more like guidelines.
Pausing by the back door, she listened to all the quiet.
“I won’t be gone long,” she called out. Silence. “I’ll be right back.”
With a sense of defeat, she lowered her head and slipped out into the garage. As the steel door slammed shut behind her, she locked the copper dead bolt with her key and hit the opener. The overhead light came on, and the cold, wet night was revealed inch by inch as the panels rolled up the tracks.
Her car was eight years old, a Honda Civic that was the color of a winter cloud. Getting in, she caught a faint whiff of motor oil. If she were human, instead of a vampire, she probably wouldn’t have noticed, but there was no avoiding the scent. Or what it meant.
Great. More good news.
Putting things in drive, she hit the gas and eased forward onto the driveway. Her father had always told her to back in, so she was ready in case she needed to get out in a hurry. In the event of fire, for instance. Or a lesser attack.
Oh, the sad irony on that.
Looking into the rearview, she waited until the garage door was locked back in place before hanging a right on her quiet street and speeding off. All the humans were settling into their houses for the night, hunkered down for the dark hours, recharging before work and school rearrived with the return of the sun. She supposed it was strange to be living so closely around the other species, but it was all she had ever known.
As with beauty, weird was relative.
The Northway was an eight-lane byway running in and out of downtown Caldwell, and she waited until she was on it and cruising at sixty-one miles an hour before she got out her phone and made her call. She kept things on speaker and in her lap. There was no Bluetooth for her old car, and she was not going to risk getting pulled over for using a handheld—
“Hello? Mae?” came the frail, wobbly voice. “Are you on your way?”
“I really wish you didn’t have to do this.”
“It’ll be okay. I’m not worried.”
The lie stung, it really did. Except what else could she say?
They stayed connected without talking, and Mae had an image of the old female sitting beside her in the car, the embroidered housecoat and pink shuffle slippers like something Lucille Ball would have worn around her and Ricky’s apartment. But Tallah was barely mobile, even with her cane. There was no way she had the gumption for what was coming.
Hell, Mae wasn’t sure she could handle this.
“You know what to do?” Tallah asked. “And you’ll call me as soon as you’re back in the car?”
God, that voice was getting so weak.
“Yes. I promise.”
“I love you, Mae. You can do this.”
No, I can’t. “I love you, too.”
As Mae hung up, she rubbed her stinging eyes. But then she was all about the exits. Fourth Street? Market? She got nervous about missing the one she needed, and ended up leaving the highway too soon. Making an inefficient box pattern around a basket weave of one-ways, she found Trade Street and stayed on it, the numbers on the avenues going up through the teens and into the twenties.
When she entered the thirties, the commercial property values plummeted, the old fashioned office buildings all boarded up, any restaurants or shops abandoned. The only cars around were either passing through or dead and picked clean, and forget about pedestrians. The cracked and debris-strune sidewalks were empty, and not just because April was still pretty cold in upstate New York.
She was losing faith in the whole plan when she came up to the first of several packed full parking lots.
And Jesus, it was about what was in them.
The vehicles—because they sure didn’t look like regular sedans and hatchbacks—were brilliant neon unless they were black, and they were styled like anime, all aerodynamic angles and scooped bumpers.
She was in the right place-
Scratch that. She didn’t belong here, but she was where she needed to be.
Mae pulled into the third lot on the same theory she’d bailed early on the highway: If she went much farther, she might overshoot things. And once she was inside the one-block boundary of rusted chicken wire, she had to go all the way to the back row to find a space. As she rolled along, humans who matched the fancy drag racers, versions of Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau, looked at her like she was a librarian lost at a rave.
This made her sad, although not because she cared about a bunch of humans’ opinions on her.
The fact that she knew anything about human influencers was courtesy of Rhoger. And the reminder of how things used to be between them was the kind of thing she had to push away. Falling into that black hole was not going to help her right now.
When she got out of her Civic, she had to lock the door with her key because the fob was dead. Tucking her bag against her body, she lowered her head and didn’t look at the people she passed. She could sense their stares, however, and the irony was that they weren’t eyeballing her because she was a vampire. No doubt her jeans and her SUNY Caldie sweatshirt were an offense to all their Gucci.
She wasn’t exactly sure where to go, but a trickle of people was funneling into a larger tributary of humans, and the lot of them were heading toward a parking garage. As she joined the eventual river of twenty-year-olds and all their hot-and-sexy, she tried to see up ahead. The entrance to the multi-leveled concrete stack was barricaded, but a line had formed outside a door that was off to one side.
As Mae took a spot and kept to herself, there was a good forty feet of single-file going on and things were moving slowly, two men the size of semis growling at the chosen who were allowed in- and they did turn people away. It just wasn’t immediately clear what the data screen was, but no doubt Mae was going to be on the “yeah-nope” list—
“You lost or something?”
The question had to be repeated before she realized she was being addressed, and as she turned around, the two girls—well, women—who were making the inquiry were looking as impressed as the bouncers were going to be when they tried to deny Mae entry.
“No,” she said. “I’m not lost.”
The one on the right, who had a tattoo under the eye that read “Dady’s Girl” in cursive, leaned in. “I think you’re fucking lost.”
Her irises were so a dark blue that they were essentially black, and the eyebrows had been plucked to such a thin wire that they—no, wait, they’d been tattooed on, too. Fake lashes were tipped with little pink dots that matched the pink-and-black ethos of what was more costume than clothing, and there were a lot of piercings in places that made Mae hope the woman never had a runny nose or food poisoning.
And FWIW, one had to wonder whether the missing d had been intentional, or if the masterful work had been sold by the letter and someone’s pocket change had run out.
“No, I’m not,” Mae said.
The woman stepped forward, breasts out like Barbarella, even though she probably had no idea who Jane Fonda was now, much less who the actress had been in the sixties. “You need to get the fuck out of here.”
Mae looked down at the cracked sidewalk they were all standing on. Weeds had muscled their way in through the seams, though everything was dried and dead thanks to the winter.
“No, I don’t.”
Next to the aggressor, the other woman lit up a cigarette and looked bored. Like maybe this happened a lot and her buddy’s drama had long lost its appeal—
“You fucking get out of here, fuck.”
Dady’s Girl punched both her palms into Mae’s shoulders with such force that it was ass-over-teakettle, the landing on the packed ground hard, the only good news was that her purse’s broken strap held and nothing fell out. As stunned disbelief took up most of the air space in her brain, she looked up.
Dady’s Girl was standing over her prey, all superhero-superior, hands on hips, high heels planted in a wide stance, the invisible cloak of her dominance and sadistic joy at having bullied someone waving over her shoulders.
The rest of the wait line had looked over or back, depending on where they were in line, but no one was coming to any rescue, and no one looked as impressed with Dady’s Girl as she herself did.
Mae braced a palm on the concrete and pushed herself back up to level, rising to her full height—which compared to the high-heeled GLOWer, was underdog status and then some.
“Get out of here,” the woman hissed. “You don’t belong.”
Those hands came out a second time, hitting the same place, like it was a well-practiced shot, a perishable skill that was kept in tip-top shape. But Mae had also just had some relevant practice. As she stumbled back, arms flapping, feet tap-dancing, her body better prepared for the tilting scramble, she had a moment of profound numbness. She felt nothing, not the bad balance, not the momentum-created wind in her hair, not the quick draw of cool air in her lungs.
It was a surprise that she managed to catch herself.
Dady’s Girl didn’t give her much time to recover. The woman rushed forward at a steep angle, like she was a linebacker—
Mae’s arm shot out of its own volition, the limb going tree limb. And the human female ran right into the open palm with the front of her throat. The instant contact was made, Mae’s fingers closed tight.
After which, the pushback came.
Mae started walking forward, escorting the woman off the sidewalk. And when Dady’s Girl struggled to accommodate the backward movement, those spiky heels catching on the ground, Mae helped things by lifting her up by the neck so that those shapely legs dangled. Meanwhile, long-taloned nails decorated with diamantés and swirls of pink clawed at the hold on that wind pipe and got nowhere, the tips snapping off, one of them hitting Mae on the chin and rebounding into thin air.
Not that she cared. Not that she really noticed.
The parking garage was constructed of concrete that had been poured properly—so its walls offered a whole helluva lot of buck-stops-here. As Mae banged the woman against the slab, the body habitus was what gave way, breath exploding out of the lungs, those pink-tipped lashes flaring.
But that didn’t go far enough for Mae.
She put her free hand on the sternum and put increasing pressure on the front rib bones . . . which translated to the lungs . . . and finally to the fiercely beating heart inside its cage of calcium and collagen bars.
The human woman’s eyes bugged out. Her jugular went from pounding to flickering. Her coloring became florid as barn siding.
In a low voice, Mae said, “You don’t tell me where I belong. Are we clear?”
Dady’s Girl nodded like her life depended on it. Which was the truth.
Meanwhile, on the periphery, the wait line had reoriented from its forward-to-back waitline formation to a horseshoe around Mae, and there was chatter, dim but excited—
“Jesus Christ, y’all know you can’t be doin’ this shit!”
Members of the crowd were tossed aside like stuffed animals as one of the bouncers came forward. And when Mae took her eyes off Dady’s Girl to give him the once-over, he stopped short and blinked. Like he wasn’t sure he was seeing this right. Like maybe a houseplant had turned out to be marijuana.
Or a man-eating species.
“Lady,” he said in an um-well-so tone. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Mae decided to follow the guy’s example with the onlookers. With a casual flick of the wrist, she empty-chip-bag’d the woman and then primly retucked her shirt and straightened her jacket.
Staring up at the bouncer, she cleared her throat. “I’m here to see the Reverend.”
The bouncer blinked again. Then he said in a low voice, “How do you know that name.”
Mae moved her purse in front of her torso and covered it with both arms- even though the likelihood of her getting pick-pocketed had just gone seriously south. Then she walked up so close to the guy that she could smell his fresh sweat, his faded cologne, and the hair product he’d used to make sure his high was high and his tight was tight.
Narrowing her eyes, she dropped her voice. “That’s none of your business and I’m done talking. You will take me to him right now.”
Another blink. And then, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”
“Wrong answer,” Mae gritted. “That’s the wrong fucking answer.”